Plains Folk

Battles and Massacres


Still today, on a site of tragedy in southeastern Colorado, there stands an obelisk bearing the legend, “Sand Creek Battle or Massacre.” Erected in 1950, the monument reflects the divided feelings of Coloradoans at mid-point of the 20th Century over Colonel John Chivington’s bloody assault on Black Kettle’s Cheyennes in 1863.


Sand Creek is generally considered the most horrible example of white-on-Indian violence in the history of the Great Plains. Sadly, it is more representative than exceptional.


Among the countless episodes when soldiers and volunteers attacked Indian peoples and killed fighters and noncombatants alike, certain ones are prominent in remembrance. Washita, in western Oklahoma, now is a National Park Service site. On-site interpretation of the fight at Washita thus is professional, but nevertheless mushy. The hard facts are hard to face.


Whitestone Hill, in North Dakota, scene of a confused and bloody engagement in 1863, has been a state historic site since 1904. Here the interpretation on the ground is downright confusing. The state, not long after assuming ownership of Whitestone Hill, erected a hilltop monument to the soldiers who died in an attack on a mixed encampment of Dakota and Lakota people, principally Yanktonai.


Even in early 20th century the known facts did not support the story that General Alfred Sully had won a creditable victory here. So in 1941 local white citizens put up their own monument to remember the native fighters who had died “in defense of their homes and hunting grounds.”


The struggle over the memory of Whitestone Hill, and over what to call it, continues today. Closure is elusive, and may not even be desired. Many descendants of the Indian defenders at Whitestone Hill, especially Yanktonai people now resident at Standing Rock, insist that what happened in 1863 must be called not a battle but a massacre. When parties gather at Whitestone Hill on August 24 to commemorate, 150 years after, what happened in 1863, I expect this discussion to continue.


This is not a local matter. It has to do with how we view the Comanche wars on the southern plains, the Dakota wars on the northern plains, the Cheyenne wars on the central plains. Without doubt, many brutal acts were committed, including the killing of thousands of noncombatants. At the time, whites called such actions by Indians “massacres.” Today Indians use the same language in reply.


Personally, I propose the retirement of the term “massacre” for all incidents of Indian-white violence on the Great Plains. Formal definitions of the word (most prominently that of the Oxford English Dictionary) commonly include the adjective “indiscriminate” in defining what constitutes a massacre. Indiscriminate killing generally was associated with notions of savagery, imputing a mindless quality to such acts.


I think we need to face the proposition that the killing of noncombatants, by both sides, often was deliberate and targeted, especially in the context of total war. It was neither incidental nor thoughtless. “Massacre” is too easy a term for what happened.


This is why I consign such words as “savage” and “massacre” to the realm of terms to be explored in their historic context, rather than perpetuated in contemporary usage. It is better that we face what really happened, rather than obscure it with a label.


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